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Manuel Larrabure1 Abstract In this paper, I address the question as to the extent to which the participatory and democratic processes taking place as part of Venezuela's new cooperative movement can be said to be a component for the building of social relations that challenge those of capitalism. I begin with a discussion of praxis and learning. Then, I attempt to situate the role of cooperatives and the participation therein within the context of capitalism. In the second half of this paper, I look at Venezuela’s new cooperativism and present preliminary findings based on an ethnographic study of three of Venezuela’s Socialist Production Units (SPUs), the country’s newest cooperative spaces. SPUs, I argue, are contradictory spaces where participants are experiencing a tension between reproductive and revolutionary praxis. In addition, they are spaces in which participants are acquiring important learning that challenges dominant market relations. Therefore, I conclude, SPUs are taking modest but important steps towards the building of Venezuela’s socialism in the 21st century.
Introduction The research presented in this paper attempts to answer two questions that are seldom raised by the current literature on cooperativism, namely how the struggle between reproductive and revolutionary praxis manifests within cooperative spaces, and whether or not something about the cooperative experience is conducive to participants learning to better fulfill their organization’s goals and needs over those of the market. My research sites are three of Venezuela’s Socialist Production Units, which although different from traditional worker cooperatives, nevertheless exemplify many of the values and practices found in the cooperative movement. Before outlining the relevant political and economic history of Venezuela and presenting my preliminary findings, I begin with an exposition of my conceptual framework, based on a Marxist understanding of praxis, learning and cooperativism.
Manuel Larrabure, “Praxis, Learning, and New Cooperativism in Venezuela: An Initial Look at Venezuela’s Socialist Production Units,” Affinities: A Journal of Radical Theory, Culture, and Action, Volume 4, Number 1, Summer 2010, pp. 288-309.
289 Praxis, learning, and cooperativism What and how we know is the result of our concrete and active day-to-day existence. And, conversely, our daily existence is the result of how and what we know. How we express this relationship between knowing and being as we produce and reproduce ourselves with and within the natural world at any given point in history is ultimately what we as humans are. Humans, then, embody and live, within history, this dialectical relationship between ontology and epistemology. It is what makes us, unlike other animals, beings of praxis.2 This conceptualization of praxis, it should be emphasized, goes beyond praxis as the unity between theory and practice (as it is commonly presented) because, as Paula Allman notes, it links not just theory but all thought to action.3 Although the above ideas are at the core of Marx’s dialectical, historical, and materialist philosophy, Marxist theorists often tend to overlook the conceptualization of praxis presented here, focusing instead on more abstract economic movements as the source of social change. The result of this sometimes is overly deterministic conceptions of history that fail to address how alternatives to capitalism can actually be built by real people in concrete historical contexts. As a response to this, I would like to propose a focus on learning as a way to understand social change. So what is the meaning of learning from a Marxist perspective? Unlike liberal and some postmodernist conceptualizations of learning, which focus solely on people’s ideas and consciousness, a Marxist understanding of learning must necessarily take into account people’s lived experiences, in particular social and historical contexts. And, most importantly, it must take into account how people actively produce and reproduce themselves. Keeping in mind, then, both active, practical existence, on the one hand, and consciousness and ideas, on the other, learning can be understood as a change of both subject and object. Learning, then, implies a productive metabolism in the subject-object dialectical compound and results in the production of a new and better understanding, within the learner, of some part of the objective world. Learning, therefore, can be understood as a process of production. And, as such, to paraphrase Marx’s thoughts on the labour process, it is a movement through which humans simultaneously change external nature as well as their own nature.4 At the end of the learning process, then, neither the subject nor the world are the same as at the start. In other words, we can’t learn something about our object of inquiry without, at the same time, changing ourselves as well as some part of the world. Learning is therefore a central aspect of our
most workers experience the commodity in the sphere of exchange9 and thus workers do not see that it was their labour at the site of production (not some process in the sphere of exchange) that is the source of the commodity’s value and surplus value. it changes who we are. but they do so in order to be able to survive and engage in the system of exchange. struggles about wages revolve around the wage amount. That is. and. produces particular spatial-temporal experiences that mystify the character of the system. in the process. there does exist the possibility for a different kind of praxis. then. But what are our praxis and our learning processes like in the context of capitalist social relations? One of the central features of capitalist social relations is that our human capacity to think and act freely. can be understood as acting as a mediator between humans and our productive activity. the reality of profit existing as a result of the capitalist paying the worker less than the value the worker creates through her labour is masked given the “disjointed” experience workers have of the unity of production and exchange. “man [sic] is a process” and therefore the question. Thus. As wage workers. to express our praxis freely. in selling their labour in exchange for a wage. as it does not challenge capitalist social relations. the experiences workers have within capitalism condition how they resist the system. not its use value. To expand.290 praxis as it implies change and movement. namely one that challenges capitalist Praxis Learning and New Cooperativism in Venezuela . They both belong to our employer who uses them to meet not our needs but those of the market so as to generate a profit. In addition. it shapes the distinctively human dialectical relationship between knowing and being to form a historically specific praxis. workers focus their attention on the exchange value of labour.11 But although reproductive praxis is the norm within capitalism. which is the worker’s own labour power. is curtailed.10 This is because workers do not sell their labour in order to engage in the inherent human capacity to think and act dialectically. Capitalism. if. although profit depends on the unity of production and exchange.7 To expand. In other words.”6 In short. as Gramsci argues. our praxis and therefore also our learning are in fact not our own. Allman calls this praxis reproductive. As István Mészáros puts it.8 For example. As Allman notes. as mentioned above. not around the wage relationship itself. capitalism is a “historically specific mediation of the ontologically fundamental self-mediation of man with nature. “what is man?” is best thought of as “what can man become?”5 then the conceptualization of learning presented above gives us an insight into what humans are indeed becoming. as Allman argues. capitalist social relations. capitalism gets in the way of our praxis.
abstract terms. it is to move towards a society from which the following principle emerges: “From each according to his abilities. In broad. this vision of revolutionary social transformation is as much about “struggling. as each worker is also an owner who has an equal say on how the cooperative’s capital is to be used. In addition. The first thing that must be said about worker cooperatives is that they exist within capitalist social relations of production. This means that cooperative processes take place in a market economy that is comprised of the contradiction between capital and labour in both the spheres of production and circulation and where the goal is the maximization of profits.”13 And what is this struggle striving towards? For Marx. Marx brilliantly sums up this kind of praxis. are there experiences within capitalism that challenge capitalist experiences and simultaneously contribute to the building of the preconditions for a society based on people’s needs and abilities? If so what are these? Can cooperativism be the source of such experiences? In order to answer these questions we must first attempt to understand the relationship between cooperativism and capitalism.14 However. rather than obscure. it is at this point that the crucial question is raised: how can people develop a praxis and a learning that is revolutionary in the context of the particular experiences people have within capitalism. describing it as “[t]he coincidence of the change of circumstances and of human activity or self-change. This is different from the dominant corporate model in which the Manuel Larrabure . to each according to his needs”. Using this definition. Or.”12 As Allman argues.291 social relations. cooperative workers are their own capitalists. producer or worker cooperatives are the quintessential cooperative space. as noted above. as well as reveal the possibility of a new society. revolutionary practice as he calls it.15 This means they have to generate a profit by first employing themselves at the point of production and then valorizing their own labour at the point of sale. One of the main differences then between worker cooperatives and traditional businesses is that in worker coops capital has been democratized. As Marx noted in Capital Volume III. which. in collaboration with others to transform ourselves as it is about the struggle to transform our social and economic conditions of existence. to put it differently. In his Theses on Feuerbach. obfuscate the nature of the system? The issue this contradiction immediately raises is whether or not experiences can exist within capitalism that reveal. cooperativism can be defined as the democratic production of value. worker coops are themselves businesses that generate profits and must compete with traditional businesses as well as with other cooperatives. the oppressive and exploitative nature of the system.
but much more.18 It is the added importance that this contradiction takes on at worker cooperatives that raises questions regards their potential for going “beyond capital” as Lebowitz puts it. The key point to take from Lebowitz’s introduction of the category of non-wagelabour is that people produce themselves as well as use-values in contexts outside of the wage-labour-capital relationship. as Lebowitz argues. Secondly. And this difference is important.” To expand. is the free expression of the distinctively Praxis Learning and New Cooperativism in Venezuela . The necessity for this distinction. namely that between the worker as a wage-labourer and the worker as a human being. under capitalism. Lebowitz argues. and particularly important from the point of view of praxis. There is one more important point that is raised regarding worker cooperatives. Nevertheless it is important to remember that the odds are stacked against individual cooperatives as they stand as a tiny sector in comparison to the dominant corporate form. but that between wage labour and what Michael Lebowitz calls “non-wage-labour.292 owners are not the workers but stockholders whose voting power is proportional to the quantity of stock each owns. In other words. And it is within these activities that we see perhaps the essential contradiction in capitalism. The reason this is important is because. within a particular cooperative.”16 In other words. In other words. In the first place. to go back to our initial discussion. it means that within a cooperative the division between capital and labour no longer exists. And what is the goal of the human being as non-wage-labourer? The answer to this. for Lebowitz. these new experiences raise the possibility for the development of a new praxis and learning that challenges dominant capitalist relations. who described the oppressed as divided beings. capitalism must be understood as containing not only the contradiction between capital and labour but also that of wage-labour and non-wage labour. in a democratic process. Thirdly. humans are not only wage-labourers. given our discussion of praxis and learning above. the human being “contains within it the human being as wage-labourer and the human being as nonwage-labourer. as is the case with traditional workplaces. the primary contradiction within these spaces can be understood as being not that between capital and labour. the worker’s own labour process at the worker coop acquires a certain level of autonomy not previously had at a traditional workplace. to some extent.”17 This contradiction at the human level was also understood by Paulo Freire. Given that they represent an end to the division between capital and labour at each individual organization. in part themselves and in part the oppressor whose image they have internalized. arises from the fact that “wage labour is merely an abstraction” which “exists only insofar as a living human being enters into this relation. is that worker members of a cooperative have to participate. property has been socialized.
foreign reserves were drained. or praxis. The more the cooperative yields to market demands. can we say that something about the cooperative experience is conducive to cooperative members learning to better fulfill their organization’s goals and needs over those of the market? It is with these questions in mind that we now turn to the concrete experiences in Venezuela. Tied to the collapse in oil prices was the heavy debt burden that the country had incurred during the 1970s.21 During this period. And practically this manifests as the struggle between the cooperative’s own needs and goals and those of the market.19 Or. the more it reproduces capitalist social relations of production. and increased imports. reaching $35 billion. in Venezuela. to put it in Freirean terms. As Harold Trinkunas notes. It is what Lebowitz calls our human need for self-development.22 By 1984.293 human dialectical relationship between ontology and epistemology. The question then is how exactly is this struggle manifesting within the experiences at each cooperative? And. This is therefore a struggle between reproductive and revolutionary praxis. the more it undermines these same relations while building new ones. debt payments. between the late 1970s and late 1980s. But because Venezuela’s economy relied so heavily on oil revenues. statist approaches to development were the norm throughout all of Latin America and were part of the broader Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI) strategy employed by most developing countries. As David Myers notes. it is to struggle to become more fully human. Venezuela’s international debt tripled. and its application relied on some level of cooperation between labour. at a time when oil prices were at a record high. capital and the state. The purpose of ISI was to achieve economic growth through the development of domestic markets and the diversification of industrial output. in turn.20 So. and the more it pursues its own goals against those of the market. the result of capital flight.23 The combination of high debt payments with the loss of revenue from the collapse of oil prices proved devastating for the economy and. for much of Venezuela’s population. poverty and inequality rose sharply while incomes and Manuel Larrabure . In previous decades Venezuela had adopted statist economic policies that relied on the revenues from high oil prices as well as high levels of debt in order to achieve some level of economic development and wealth redistribution. what we see at cooperatives (and perhaps more acutely than in traditional workplaces) is a struggle between these two parts of the human being. during the Herrera government (1979-1984). the collapse of oil prices in the 1980s dealt a severe blow to Venezuela’s development strategy. The “Bolivarian Revolution” and the rise of Venezuela’s new cooperativism In the 1980s there began a drastic shift in Venezuela’s political economy.
including the promise of a new constitution. The result was a sharp rise in inflation. The policies became highly unpopular and people demonstrated their discontent on the streets.27 It was in the context of this economic and social crisis of the 1980s that the now President of Venezuela. a strategy followed to different degrees by all of Latin America with the encouragement of the United States.26 With this also came the delegitimization of the country’s democracy. riding on a wave of popular support. Chávez.28 The changes the Chávez government proceeded to introduce sparked the beginning of an overt political battle against the politics of neoliberalism. and the privatization of state companies. with the percentage of people living in critical poverty reaching 53. first introduced in January. which culminated in a failed coup attempt in 1992. In 1998. a 10% decline in GDP and a 14% decline in personal income. promotion of foreign investment. a thousand times a lie! Of course there are other ways and in Venezuela we are demonstrating it. which resulted in the deaths of up to 3000 civilians.29 Praxis Learning and New Cooperativism in Venezuela .” “the market fixes everything. economic redistribution.” The rejection of neoliberalism was made explicit by Chávez himself immediately following his 1998 electoral victory. The most dramatic of these demonstrations occurred in Caracas on February 27. The government reacted to the rebellion--known as el Caracazo--by sending in the military. the essence of the neoliberal strategy. These policies. trade liberalization.25 This meant less public control over the country's economy. shortly after the implementation of the neoliberal program. it’s a lie.7. Chávez managed to win the presidential elections with 56% of the vote. decided to pursue the presidential office through the ballot box.24 Elected President in 1989.294 productivity declined. and participatory democracy. 1989. marking the beginning of what became known as the “Bolivarian Revolution. “The invisible hand. As he stated during one of his election victory rallies: In Venezuela and in all of Latin America along came the savage neoliberal project. would begin his rise to power. Following his rise up the military ranks. to put it differently. the deregulation of prices. a significant reduction of the public sphere in relation to the market. By 1989 the situation had become dire. included a reduction of public expenditures. running on a platform of radical change. it’s a lie. Hugo Chávez. Carlos Andres Perez sought a solution to the economic crisis through the application of neoliberal policies. or.
At the center of these more local changes one finds two different spaces: cooperatives and the newly emerging Socialist Production Units. Manuel Larrabure . In 1998. From cooperatives to Socialist Production Units Since the Chávez administration came to power in 1998.34 numbers that are still very substantial. guaranteeing the right of property in Article 115 and identifying a role for private initiative in the generation of growth and employment in Article 299. approved via referendum by 70% of the population. The majority of these cooperatives. freedom.295 This rejection of the neoliberal program was also demonstrated in the 1999 Venezuelan constitution.30 Michael Lebowitz also notes the constitution’s emphasis on human development as evident in the declaration of Article 20 that “everyone has the right to the free development of his or her own personality in a democratic society. ERTs began to appear in Venezuela between 2002 and 2003. This is evidenced by the tremendous changes that are also occurring at the local level. many of the cooperatives that were first formed were discovered to be non-functioning or simply fronts created for the purpose of accessing government funds. it explicitly rejected neoliberalism as a socio-economic model and sought to give the state a much greater role in the economic and political activity of the country. with their numbers reaching a total of between 20 and 30 by 2006. and national sovereignty. the constitution focused on social justice. ERTs. are small or medium in size. as Lebowitz goes on to point out.917. a phenomenon that surged in Argentina during its 2001-2002 economic crisis.000 and 60.000 functioning units currently exist in Venezuela. Lucena & Carmona outline. while by September 2006 that number had grown to 158. But these developments do not mean simply a return to the statist policies pursued before the 1980s. But.”31 In the same breath. there has been an explosion of both worker and consumer cooperatives in Venezuela. operate in the services and productive sectors. over 80% of cooperatives employ 5-10 people while about 15% of them employ between 11 and 50.32 Thus although the new Chávez administration did not offer a break from capitalism. In terms of size. the constitution retained a support for capitalism. or ERTs). political participation. since then.33 an exceptionally large number relative to other national cooperative movements worldwide. employing a total of a few thousand workers. As Martha Harnecker notes. it seems.36 Most of these ERTs. while those in transportation come at a distant third.” or that of Article 299 with its emphasis upon “ensuring overall human development.35 Venezuela has also witnessed the appearance of empresas recuperadas por sus trabajadores (worker-recuperted enterprises. The latest figures estimate that between 30. there were 877 cooperatives.
attended by 400 workers. reflected. designed by the Ministry of Popular Power for the Communal Economy. as has been the case with INVEPAL since 2006. which includes the granting of preferential aid41 and increased access to government contracts. having witnessed ongoing conflicts between workers and the government bureaucracy.43 Praxis Learning and New Cooperativism in Venezuela .39 What is important to note is that the huge overall growth of cooperatives in Venezuela during the last few years. has been less the result of spontaneous activity from below than of public policy. SPUs. This shift has also been a product of the government’s progressive move towards the left. the government began to take a greater interest in ERTs and began actively expropriating contested enterprises. As I will outline below. there has been a shift away in government policy from supporting the traditional cooperative model towards the creation of what is known as Socialist Production Units (SPU).” Currently there are over 3.296 the authors note. emerged as a reaction on the part of workers and the government to the political and economic crisis the country was undergoing in 2002 and 2003. in which many owners.000 SPUs in Venezuela. as Camila Harnecker notes. and government representatives from several Latin American countries. in the 2001 Special Law of Cooperative Associations and the Vuelvan Caras cooperative development government program. the ERT movement seems to have fizzled away.42 This extensive support the government gives to cooperatives is therefore the most important new feature of Venezuela’s cooperative sector. for example. Once the crisis was averted. for political reasons. decided to temporarily paralyze their businesses. These actions conducted by the business sector coincided with the government’s opposition’s attempt to paralyze the country’s economy in order to oust Chávez from power.38 But since then.37 That same year. the government also hosted the first Latin American Encounter of Worker-Recuperated Enterprises. But. display a number of unique innovations in cooperativism that go beyond economic support by the state. their development has been posited by the Venezuelan government as central to the country’s transition to “21st century socialism.40 The proactive role the government has taken in relation to the cooperatives is also evident in its economic support for the sector. due in part to the problems associated with the cooperative sector mentioned above. unionists. in the last two years. going from an anti-neoliberal stance towards openly socialist politics. such as INVEPAL in 2005. In addition.
44 its relationship to competing private firms. In terms of personnel. My data collection tools included textual analysis. and much less that focuses on the above-mentioned questions. But before doing so. observation. The preliminary findings I provide below are based on an ethnographic study of three SPUs conducted between June and September of 2009. An institutional map of SPUs Venezuela’s SPUs are productive spaces dedicated to the generation of goods or services. there is very little research that looks at cooperative spaces in Venezuela. using praxis and learning as a theoretical lens with which to examine the potential that cooperative spaces hold for developing social relations that challenge those found within capitalism leads me to ask. (1) how the struggle between reproductive and revolutionary praxis manifests within cooperative spaces and (2) whether or not something about the cooperative experience is conducive to participants learning to better fulfill their organization's goals and needs over those of the market? Currently.46 One author that does explicitly look at participation within worker cooperatives is Camila Harnecker. Harnecker argues that there exists a strong connection between workplace democracy and the development of collective consciousness. 48 as well as my work with Schugurensky and Marcelo Vieta49 in the field of participatory democracy and learning. each being Manuel Larrabure . there is some literature that looks at Venezuela’s social or popular economy more generally. and a survey instrument. which she defines as the understanding of. I proceed to directly address the questions outlined above in relation to SPUs. and disposition to contribute to the interests of others. The survey instrument was based on the work of Daniel Schugurensky and Josh Lerner. In her study of 15 cooperatives.297 Praxis and learning in Venezuela’s Socialist Production Units: Preliminary findings As argued in the first section of this paper. informal conversations. semistructured interviews.47 Relevant also is her discovery of a continued existence of a social division of labour within the cooperatives she studied. they are relatively small. and was used to assess participants’ informal learning over time. However. I provide a brief outline of their institutional position within the Venezuelan state. A total of 20 participants were interviewed. Below.45 and in the internal organization of particular social economy organizations. A look through this literature reveals that Venezuela’s social economy is experiencing tensions in its relationship to the state bureaucracy. including SPU workers and members of the state bureaucracy.
SPUs can be thought of as the individual parts that comprise the larger institutional body known as Empresas de Propiedad Social (Social Property Enterprises. whose role as part of the program is to help SPEs through. However. which. PDVSA. the corresponding ministry is the Ministry of Popular Power for Agriculture and Land. SPEs (as well as the state corporations they belong to) receive their direct political guidance from the government ministry responsible for the sector of the economy they operate in. government run discount stores located throughout the country. in turn. SPUs adhere to many traditional cooperative values. First. For example. Third. created by the national executive in November 2005 as part of the program of Social Production Enterprises. SPUs work closely with small and medium local private producers. Pedro Camejo. has its central office in the city of Barquisimeto. one of the SPEs that I looked at. local communal councils (democratically run neighbourhood associations found throughout the country). in practice. In other words. with several SPUs located in nearby communities. In the case of the three SPEs that I looked at. as their workers are not the owners. SPEs are linked to the state in several ways. SPUs are stateowned. closely linked to the state-owned oil company. the three SPUs that I looked at belong to three different SPEs. For example.50 The REPS is. each single SPE can and does have several SPUs that constitute it. among other things. those of democratic participation and concern for community. At the production stage. belong to one single state corporation. they are administered by the Registry of Social Production Enterprises (REPS in Spanish). This means that SPUs are technically not worker cooperatives in the traditional sense. The goods they produce are then distributed through Mercal.298 comprised of about 20 to 100 people. nonprofit and managed democratically by a combination of their workers. At an institutional level. Second. or SPEs). namely the Venezuelan Agrarian Corporation (CVA in Spanish). each SPE belongs to one of the many state corporations created by the national executive for the purposes of forwarding the government’s economic and development policies that include fostering the country’s “popular” economy. and the state. in turn. Praxis Learning and New Cooperativism in Venezuela . preferential contracts and financing. It is these characteristics of SPUs that distinguish them from traditional worker cooperatives as well as from Venezuela’s current state-supported cooperative model. in particular.
There are two examples of this I would like to highlight. In other words. The second example of how SPU participants experienced a struggle between their goals and the demands of the market is related to SPU’s relationship with intermediaries.51 What’s interesting is that in at least some cases those with lower levels of education went along with the meritocracy argument posed by those with higher education. In all three SPUs. more drastic measures were taken. To some extent or another all three SPUs struggled with this issue. as workplace democracy became one of the issues behind a worker-led factory shutdown in mid August. At another SPU. This is evident in the way SPU participants experience the struggle between some of their organization’s goals and the demands of the market. But this was not always the case. At one SPU. a portion of the personnel wanted to do away with the social division of labour by implementing a new equal wage system coupled with rotating job duties. Meritocracy not only goes contrary to the democratic practices that are supposed to exist at SPUs but. At all three SPUs. an SPU’s principal space for democratic participation. they believed in a system of meritocracy. characterized by strict hierarchies. and a division between mental and manual labour. Manuel Larrabure . One of the main dynamics I found at the SPUs I visited was that better-educated workers felt that because of their education they should hold better-paid administrative or managerial positions than those with less education. 2009. in addition. The first is related to the SPU’s internal social division of labour. One of the explicit goals of SPUs is to do away with the social division of labour traditionally found in capitalist enterprises. This goal is expressed not only in SPUs’ official mission statements but also in the comments made by a significant number of the participants I interviewed. specialized job tasks. workers felt that the existence of intermediaries poses a serious challenge to this goal. Intermediaries are basically people that possess relatively large amounts of money capital and are thus able to purchase large amounts of produce from local producers with the aim of selling it in the most lucrative markets. Perhaps the principle goal of all three SPUs I visited was to provide accessibly priced food to those communities who need it most.299 Reproduction and revolution in the experiences of SPU participants SPU participants seem to be indeed experiencing a struggle between reproducing capitalist social relations of production and challenging these same relations. reinforces the division between mental and manual labour that characterizes work within capitalism. this desire took the form of the “integral worker” initiative brought forth through the Workers’ Council.
this learning contributes to the building of a new society based on people’s needs. This is the first area of learning that. this learning has helped participants meet their own material needs by challenging the state bureaucracy that. organizing cultural events with them as well as engaging with them in political discussions. SPU participants are happy to work with small producers with the purpose of making food more accessible to local consumers (while indirectly also easing their dependence on the labour market). on the one hand. attempting to develop a closer relationship with local producers by. due to the Praxis Learning and New Cooperativism in Venezuela . Second. Second is participants’ collective organization and planning abilities.300 The activity of intermediaries works to reproduce capitalist social relations in at least two ways. Knowledge of own needs The knowledge acquired by participants about their own needs is perhaps the most important area of learning reported. Learning at SPUs So far. I now expand on each of these two areas. This makes food less accessible to those most in need and in turn forces upon people a greater dependence on the labour market for their survival. In addition. indirectly help the intermediaries who are now able to increase their profit margins by buying from the producers at a subsidized price. Indeed. direct confrontation with the intermediaries would be necessary and was likely in the not-too-distant future. intermediaries raise the average price of food. This means that while. However. for example. confront the reality that at least to some degree it is the intermediaries who benefit from their work. SPUs. SPUs are. has helped SPU participants fulfill their organization’s goals while challenging the demands of the market. Out of the 14 areas of learning assessed this one received the largest number of positive responses. to a significant extent. the data reveals two main areas of learning acquired by SPU participants that directly help them fulfill their organization’s cooperative goals while challenging those of the market. To expand. In an attempt to eventually break the relationship producers have with the intermediaries. responds to the demands of the world market. as workers at Pedro Camejo realized. on the other hand. they. First is the knowledge acquired by participants about their own needs. I argue. through the help they provide to small producers. as some SPU participants revealed. Most directly. almost 50% of the 20 participants interviewed reported significant improvement in this area. for the moment. This learning also indicates a movement towards the building of new social relations based on people’s needs and abilities.
one SPU participant responded with the following comments: For example. We have managed to satisfy many needs. For example. For the above-cited participant the capacity to meet needs seems to be one of the most important functions of the SPU. Although the reasons for his death were not revealed to me. it has been a week since our friend died. One way that SPU participants have acquired this new knowledge is through their participation at the SPU’s Workers’ Council. management had not delivered on many of the benefits the workers were supposed to have such as a savings and a housing fund. This is what led us to doing this [the factory shut down] and we [the Workers’ Council] all decided this. The plant shut down was carried out in protest against the SPU’s new state management who for several months had been doing a very poor job of managing the SPU’s health insurance system. family needs. when asked about how success is measured in her SPU. the state bureaucracy is dominated by technocrats who adhere to a social democratic and “developmentalist” model for the country that does not offer a break from capitalism. the Workers’ Council blamed management and demanded their rights be returned. according to one participant. The situation reached a climax when one of the workers died on the job.” Manuel Larrabure . if one goes to the clinic but does not have an emergency you are not attended to. she answered. As revealed by several SPU participants as well as members of the Venezuelan Agrarian Coorporation who administer the three SPUs I examined. When they brought him here before he died he was choking and here we needed a paramedic…. “little by little we’ve been making progress. management had paid for only one clinic in the state of Lara to provide care to the more than 80 workers at her SPU. That’s why we are fighting. These comments give us a sense of how SPU participants were able to use the Workers’ Council as a vehicle not only for articulating their health care needs but also for attempting to meet these through collective action against technocratic state managers. personal needs and community needs. This was most evident during a worker-led plant shutdown that occurred in mid-August at one SPU. In addition. For example. It is no surprise then that PDVSA openly acknowledges that the help and support they give SPUs is with the final end of developing an industrial sector that is geared towards complementarity with national and international marketss in terms of competitiveness and productivity. Here [at the SPU] we should have a paramedic….301 state’s dependence on the global sale of the country’s oil. One has to be dying in order to be attended to. When asked to expand on this delicate situation.
A process that was extremely difficult. that the Workers’ Council was a tool for moving towards worker self-management. namely through the process of collective planning and organization itself. Specifically. So this learning has been very productive. he replied: Organization. First is that this one participant felt that collective planning and organization was one of the most important things he learned at his SPU. what was collective planning… one didn’t know. It was a process that we acquired through sweat and tears. A year and a half ago I had no idea what the Workers’ Council was or how it was going to be organized.302 Collective organization and planning abilities Collective organization and decision-making abilities is another area of learning acquired by SPU participants that has helped them fulfill the SPU’s goals while challenging those of the market. which included participation in the SPUs democratically run Workers’ Council. the administration and the presidency in those days were difficult. And this learning has been very productive. When asked about some of the most important accomplishments of his SPU since he began working there. they reveal how these new abilities were learned. The following comments by one participant give us a sense of this process. And lastly. which was not an easy process. Second. But how it was to be organized. But it was the most important accomplishment! That workers plan their own work. It has been years since I worked. Neither was it a process that was given to us. These two passages reveal a number of things. We haven’t had practice. This is the first time that I have worked at producing something. the same respondent replied: First is collective planning by the workers. that the worker arrives on Monday to work already knowing what he is going to do and where he is going to do it… because it was a product of his own intellect. but never practiced. That is to say. this learning has helped participants break down the SPU’s internal social division of labour. Maybe I knew what I had read. how to organize production… and advance towards a socialist mode of production! One has theorized a lot. Even the discussions with management. these comments reveal how this learning is helping participants break down the division between mental and manual labour as Praxis Learning and New Cooperativism in Venezuela . When asked what was the most valuable thing he had learned as an SPU participant. what was its function.
the data reveals two areas of learning which allow SPUs to fulfill their own goals while challenging those of the market: learning about the SPUs own needs and learning about collective organization and decision-making. I have argued that focusing on praxis and learning as a process of production is an important lens through which to assess the possibility of developing an alternative to capitalism. Of note is that this learning directly addresses the contradictions experienced by SPU participants in regards to the SPU’s internal social division of labour. Lastly. The data analysed reveals two areas where there is a clear struggle between the SPU’s own goals and those of the market. the result of the SPU’s democratic practices. In the second section of this paper. also contribute to the building of new social relations in which each person can contribute according to her own abilities and can receive according to his own needs. Of note though is that. the three SPUs I looked at seem to be better capable of challenging the social division of labour that still exists at both Manuel Larrabure . as these. these two areas of learning. Concluding remarks In this paper. at least potentially. at least in part. the processes associated with cooperativism take on a particular importance. In addition. and cooperation taking place there. I argued. I highlighted two contemporary spaces of cooperation in Venezuela: cooperatives and Socialist Production Units. but fails to do so in regards to the SPU’s contradictory relationship to intermediaries. I concluded by presenting preliminary findings based on research conducted at three SPUs.303 workers engage in collective and conscious planning of their workday. draws a connection between workplace democracy and collective consciousness. I outlined how Venezuela’s cooperative movement has developed in the last ten years or so. In addition. and the state into a democratic space at the point-of-production. this learning seems to be. as mentioned above. namely: the SPUs internal social division of labour and the SPUs relationship with intermediaries. The preliminary findings presented in this paper are consistent with some of the literature mentioned above that finds tensions between Venezuela’s social economy and the state as well as in the internal organization of particular organizations. So far. a necessary step for the building of new social relations in which people can contribute to society according to their own abilities. local communities. learning. offer up particular experiences that challenge those found in traditional capitalist workplaces. as well as for bringing together workers. they broadly support the work of Camila Harnecker that. in comparison to the 15 cooperatives Harnecker studied. Using this lens. the latter being at the forefront of Venezuela’s new cooperativism for the forms of praxis.
would be most useful.304 types of organizations. Praxis Learning and New Cooperativism in Venezuela . such as Venezuela’s communal councils. To conclude. SPUs are indeed serving as vehicles for the development of a revolutionary praxis necessary for moving Venezuela a step closer to a socialism for the 21st century. although contradictory. Further research that attempts to more closely compare SPUs to worker cooperatives as well as to other cooperative spaces. these preliminary findings give some weight to the idea that.
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